Emma's Fincher family legecy
- The Observer
"Look down, look down that lonesome road, before you travel on," sang an old man once, out on the vast swell of the North American plains.
His impromptu performance survives in posterity in the recollections of Emma Fincher, a woman who made no less than three westward crossings in the late 1800s.
"It was the first time I had ever heard it," she wrote about the old homesteader's desolate tune, "and it made me feel (so) lonesome I cried."
Emma's legacy Â— and that of her first husband, John Â— was recently resurrected at a Fincher family reunion near Summerville, attended by more than 80 of the family.
Six of John and Emma's seven surviving grandchildren were gathered on a hot Saturday afternoon at Don and Donna Fincher's home beneath Pumpkin Ridge.
Besides Don, the youngest at 74, there were Fern Egbert, 85; Wanda Crisp, 83; Mellissa Wood, 81; John Fincher, 80; and Lola Colley, 76. A seventh sibling, Faye Nelson, 84, currently resides at Wildflower Lodge in La Grande.
Their grandmother Emma is remembered for her epic feats of endurance, dramatized in repeated emigrant journeys.
"She walked all the way," says Mellissa. "All the way from Missouri to Boise."
On one of those trips, she marched on with her family to the Grande Ronde Valley, settling for several years in Summerville and marrying John.
John's first wife, Tennessee Belle Emmerson, died in childbirth and is buried in the Summerville cemetery. Emma was her cousin, and originally headed west to help take care of the children.
Mellissa remembers that, even in her later years, her grandmother was a formidable walker.
"When she was in her late eighties," she says, "I couldn't keep up with her."
Emma had a slew of adventures on her long expeditions through the West, many of which she recounted to Idaho newspapers in the 1950s.
She related an unsettling tale from the Kansas prairies, near the Smokey Hill River, in 1888. A man claiming to be a preacher directed the wagon train she was traveling with into a strange and foreboding valley, promising a church service in the morning. They passed a hinterland house, from which an old woman emerged and accosted the party.
"... Seeing we had a baby in our wagon, which was my sister Ida, she wanted the child," Emma recalled in 1950. "Â‘Will you give her to me?' she asked. Â‘No, I certainly won't!' my mother snapped."
When they arrived at a dead-end, an assembly of vultures alerted them to a large hole in the ground, covered loosely with dirt and brush.
"A terrible odor of something dead arose around the hole," Emma wrote in her account, "and right where we had planned to camp for the night there were parts of burnt wagons and harness(es) and portions of carcasses of some sort."
Around the fire that night, suspicious visitors so unnerved the emigrants that Emma and the other women retreated to the wagons and cradled loaded guns.
"In the darkness of that horrible night we could see small lights like evil eyes, dotting the mountain sides in the many hovels built throughout this little depression," she continued. "Now we knew we were trapped and we realized that if we could not get out quickly the buzzards would soon be flying over our bodies in that pit too."
They fled from the valley that same night, a strenuous escape occupying their energies until dawn. Before departing, they looked back toward the ghostly outpost.
"We saw those robbers coming from their various shacks into the camp where they had planned for us to come to church,'" Emma wrote. "That sight is one I'll never forget. As we stood and looked down upon that place where buzzards still sailed overhead, we saw those fellows milling around and some of them looking up our way, (and) we all thanked God for delivering us. We heard afterwards that many people were herded into their trap and never heard from again."
She remembered crossing Wyoming's Green River during flood stage on that same trip. The current was so ferocious that the emigrants had to goad their oxen across with a "gore stick" Â— a pole of willow or hickory studded with a nail.
After their marriage, John and Emma left the Grande Ronde Valley and returned to Missouri with some of her family, but a destructive drought set them back on the westward road to Boise.
John, who had 11 children by his previous marriage, had another 11 with Emma, including Alfred, the patriarch of the Fincher family.
Alfred and his wife, Joise, settled on a ranch in Vale, part of a homesteading deal for World War I veterans. The children grew up there and in the vicinity of Baker City.
Visits from their grandmother were keenly anticipated.
"I remember when she came to the ranch to visit us, she always had something for us kids," Don Fincher says.
Mellissa stayed a whole summer with Emma.
"She told me stories about the Indians," Mellissa says.
According to Fern, John Fincher is one of the names listed at the monument at Massacre Rocks on Idaho's Snake River Plain, the site of deadly skirmishes between Indians and emigrants in 1862.
Alfred had a musical inclination, which he happily imparted to his offspring.
"When I was nine years old," recalls Fern, "my dad taught me how to play the banjo."
Soon all of the children were tackling one stringed instrument or another, and singing traditional country and western songs and Christian hymns.
"A lot of time they chased us out to the haystack because we made too much noise," Mellissa says.
Yodeling was part of this education, although Don, the youngest of Alfred and Joise's children, rarely indulges in that high and lonesome sound anymore.
"You girls burnt me out on yodeling," he chuckles to his sisters.
Today, some of the siblings perform at nursing homes and senior centers as the Fincher Band, and at family reunions such as this, they invariably gather in Don's barn for a few tunes.
Don says, "The Summerville area hasn't changed a lot ... but La Grande has really built up, especially on the strip. I remember when you wouldn't meet a car between La Grande and Island City."
His observations echo those of his grandmother, reminiscing of the hard tracks of the emigrant routes.
"There was quite a contrast in the roads then and now," she wrote in 1950. "They were very rugged, sometimes being nothing more than a cow's trail, with bridges few and far between."
She concluded her recollections with an envoy: "This bit of history is dedicated to my grandchildren who constantly ask, Â‘Grandma, when are you going to write the story about crossing the Plains? Tell us about the bandits at Smokey Fork when they captured you.'"